Crawled my way down the playlist from Max Frost to Natalie Merchant and suddenly I am back in 1997 opening Soundbites Cafe for the early shift, cranking the stereo before the customers come in for their first cuppa joe, hoping for some cathartic release from the grief that comes with a boyfriend who juggles fire, clubs, and women.
Today I am full of doubt.
Now, in the black and white font of this site you might take pity on me, or feel bored with this typical and on-going issue, or not care either way. The latter I cannot help, but regarding the pity, don't give my mind-chatter any moment of compassion. I'd rather it not be fueled by any attention whatsoever. The moment you engage, it's off to the races.
I've heard mind-chatter described like a television channel or radio station, but I don't agree. Those boxes can be changed or turned off at will. You can turn down the volume. Walk out of the room.
Mind-chatter is more like an eight-year old kid. Do you happen to have one around? If not, I'll tell you - they are on constant chatter. They bounce from topic to topic. They talk like drunks. The moment you open a book to read, they lay on top of it. They climb on the back of the couch, let Cheerios lay where they fall, and leave the box of crayons spilled across the couch even though they've moved on to choreographing a dance. They ask questions, and then shift gears the moment you try to answer. They are hungry, starving, and hate the casserole you've made. And did they tell you about the game they played at school? Yes? Okay, let them tell you again. There is no inner dialog for an eight-year-old that does not, without filter, become the outer dialog.
Like the eight-year-old, the mind will chatter. Like the heart will beat, the lungs will breathe, the inner psyche will run on and on with an endless stream of story-line. The main difference between the heart and the mind is that while the heart beats regardless of the attention you bestow upon its actions, the mind wants attention and will try any and every way to gain it.
"I am beautiful" is, apparently, not interesting dialog. There's no inner turmoil in that, no engagement, no drama. It turns out that simple love stories won't do. A thought like "I am beautiful" is tossed out as soon as it arises. But give me soap operas and I'll be hooked all afternoon.
When I sit down to write, as I have done today, all I think is "I am boring", "I cannot do this thing", and "why bother trying - someone else can do it better". In light of my recent readings of Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf, it is so easy to go there. Their books are extraordinary, and so that's where my mind-chatter goes. Like the eight-year-old, the mind wants attention. It will use every trick in the book to get it.
I texted Darby a few minutes ago:
Me: "afraid to write. afraid of being boring or having poor judgment or telling a pointless story."
him: "i totally understand. what you write might be all of those things... or not. you just gotta write. it's not your last piece. nothing rides on it. some hits some misses. and brooke just brought over some yummy donut creation. if you write, you can have some..."
I'm not above coercion, or anything doughnut related, but what I would give for useful mind-chatter. How about something helpful like "ah, this is how we will develop the structure". I mean, shouldn't my mind and I be on the same team? A good-natured chat like, "hey, Arielle, there's a cool simile - come on, try it out" would be very welcome.
So I've been thinking - practice makes perfect, right? Well, it seems I've perfected saying to myself things I would never think to say to someone else. Sure, I make mind-quieting meditation a regular practice in my life. That has helped me calm down, be present, let go. But today I'm starting a new practice. This one is not a practice of quieting the mind - it's a practice of writing my own script. I'm going to start small - just as I did with the mind-quieting meditation six years ago. Two minutes. Two minutes by the clock of meditating on a new mantra, in plain, simple English.
I am talented.
I am extraordinary.
I have a talent for storytelling.
I have a way with words that the world wants to hear - through stories, through songs, through teaching.
I need more stories like these chattering away in my mind, so I am going to start practicing them today. After all, I am a writer, aren't I?
Hi ho, it's me here, a/k/a "Sick As A Dog", writing to you from a miraculously upright position. Granted, I can tend toward the dramatic, but I'm a little p.o.'ed that the cold everyone has gotten this winter has hit me TWICE. This, without even one airplane trip or snowstorm.
On the upside, my office was closed for the long President's Day weekend and I had no other official plans, so after getting through the idea that no, I would not be running eleven miles around Griffith Park, and no, I would not frolic along the mulch-y Mount Baldy riverside trails with Darby, I felt no guilt about tucking into bed for two days. I am convinced that yoga speeds recovery time, helping as it does to circulate the blood, breath, sweat, and lymphatic fluids through the body, so I did manage to roll out my mat each day. The first day wasn't pretty, but I got 'er down. The second day I was strong and a tad bit more flexible. Tonight's practice will (fingers crossed) cure me entirely.
The other upside of being sick is that between naps I had no energy for anything but reading. My next MFA mentor-group reading conference (think "online book club for writing craft nerds") is on Moby Dick, and while I've got a ton still to do in our whale of a book (hehe...), I've been dying to finish William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways first.
The reason for Blue Highways is that it's a journey book, and I've been on-and-off at work on a piece (short story? book length?) about my time on the road with my band. In Heat-Moon's own words, "I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected." He was philosophical. In 2006 I simply packed myself, my then-husband (aka, the drummer), a bass player, and a bunch of instruments into a van fueled on vegetable oil so we could play some gigs.
As it turns out, Heat-Moon was also way more self-aware than I was. And more patient. What I felt in Alabama after a few weeks took him till Minnesota on page 284: "Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: sever irritability."
On our tour, my bandmates and I were tethered to each other, the gig calendar, and a map. We slept mainly on people's floors, sometimes their extra beds, a handful of times in motels, and once on a bar room floor after the club closed for the night (WI). There was one waterbed (PA), two laundromat gigs (CA and TX), more vegetable oil fuel than we could stow (GA), fried peanuts (also GA), a cowboy reporter with purple boots (TX), a hookah bar in an airplane hangar (NC), a martini named after me (OR), three shows in Manhattan (NY and KS), and an ex-brothel (AR). We went through two sets of tires, one windshield, and countless gallons of vegetable oil. I was charmed by Kansas, smitten with Texas, adored Ashland, and wanted to love New Hope, PA but had a nervous breakdown instead. In the end, I crossed from Atlantic to Pacific twice and Pacific to Atlantic once. The last A-to-P was sans bass player - we left him in Virginia without so much as a hug good-bye. Being on the road is tough, but it was a true journey in many ways.
And although my then-husband is now remarried-with-child and settled back on the east coast, I'm a born-again California girl. Just yesterday, despite my cold, I said to Darby, "You know, whatever hardship comes along, there's always the fact that we live in beautiful California." He agreed.
Incidentally, in my current state I have learned that I am not actually sick as in "sick as a dog". This phrase apparently has its origins in the fact that dogs will eat anything and as a result become sick to their stomachs. Nor am I "sick as a parrot", as the British say, which is also more like the stomach flu due to seafaring parrots' taste for the rotting fruit aboard sailing ships. Nor am I "under the weather", a phrase also supposedly taken from the sea, for the sick were sent to the more stable below-deck rooms to ease their suffering. (For your information - and note to myself - my brief research revealed that many of the feelin' illin' idioms come from sea travel. This reinforces my aversion to vacation cruises.)
What I am is simply tired, congested, head-achy, and sneezy. I can't find a single cute idiom for it. Given these forthright symptoms, you'd think I might find a suitable over-the-counter remedy, however neither Dayquil nor Sudafed have helped my condition. I am open to your suggestions. For now, as much as possible, I'm resting, reading, and yoga-ing. Also, for whatever reason, I have been craving tapioca pudding, and so have indulged to my satisfaction.
"Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more."
- From Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
I pass Pauline sometimes while I’m out for my lunchtime run near the office. She sits in the front porch shade with her dog and a pile of oranges from her tree, often reading from her bible, or talking on the phone, or talking with the postman who sometimes picks up little grocery items for her.
When we talk, I ask about her hip which needs replacing, or her eyes which are doing much better since the cataract surgery last summer, and inevitably talk of Tony, her husband, the love of her life who passed away a few years ago. They bought this house on the corner in 1971, and together they decorated for every holiday from Christmas to Easter to Halloween. She smiles a lot, but when I ask about Tony, she can't hold back the tears. Last year, the week before Easter, she didn't bother wiping them away as she told me that Easter Sunday was their wedding anniversary, and how lonely she is without him. Every minute, Pauline told me, she misses Tony.
She doesn't get around very well because of that hip, and without Tony she can't decorate, but it's Valentine's Day, and so today she is wearing a pretty red top and cheerful lipstick.
Around the edges of my love for Darby is the heart-wrenching awareness that every thing in this life is temporary, that the magnificent joys of today may be the deep sorrows of tomorrow. What do I do with that? Just the thought of it ties up my belly and nearly chokes me. So today I stop by with Valentine's flowers for Pauline.
One man hobo band scratching his whisky-ed words at the microphone.
He's thumping at his suitcase for a kick
And got a jangly tambo for the snare,
Dirty, bluesy ax with f-holes a hundred-fifty years older than his jeans
And a Gibson humbucker rattling against his side.
As he claws at the strings like a gritty freight train coming down the tracks,
I find myself thinking:
If only I had his voice, if only I had his groove.
But I only have the things I have,
Which includes no whisky, and no grime.
Not to mention I'm asleep by ten most nights.
I can only hope that the world needs us both,
And everyone else as well.
Call it faith or blindness, either way I don't know what else to do,
So I'll keep writing my little words, and sing when I can.
I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
Yesterday, my sweetheart and I were in Ventura. In the late afternoon, after coffee and beignets from the little French cafe on Main Street, we walked down to the beach. If you're Facebook friends with anyone here in southern Cali, you probably saw postings about last night's sunset. All day the sky was gorgeous -- clear blue with titanium white streaks of strata clouds and little puffs of cumulus like freshly whipped cream. The air has been very warm lately from the Santa Anas that blew in last week, but in late afternoon, as the sun dipped behind the clouds, we zipped up hoodies and sat watching the 150-ish (we counted, then lost track) surfers bopping around in the waves.
"How would you describe that smell?" I asked.
"Salty, briny," my sweetheart replied.
"Ah, yes, briny. That's the word."
We shifted our gaze back to the sunset, the rosy-colored ocean, the tangerine clouds. Occasionally we twisted to take a peek at the purple mountains rising behind us. Holding hands, we kissed every now and then, cheeks, mouth, hands, and then turned back to watch the surfers and the sun.
"I always thought when I heard the phrase 'crashing waves' that people meant the physical act of the water falling, but now I understand it as sound -- booming, thundering, crashing," I said.
"Yes," my sweetheart replied.
"And the birds," I said. "So many sounds here at the ocean."
"Yes," my sweetheart replied, and kissed me again.
We watched three friends greet each other near the water’s edge, their whippets rushing in and away like kids on a playground. A lone sandpiper danced in and out with the tide. Two ducks flew south, intent on their destination. A man trained a telephoto lens on the horizon, and another couple kneeled in the sand with their cameras on the sun's glow and the silhouetting channel islands.
“Ah! Did you see that?” my sweetheart exclaimed. I’d missed it, but he told me how a surfer lifted up on a wave and spun in the air 360 degrees, and landed upright, still coasting on the edge till the wave died out in the shallows. A few minutes later he did it again, and that time I saw it.
The softness of our gaze outward, the calmness we felt as we bathed in the long moments, our relaxed bodies, these were contrasted by the pointy corners of the two boxes that I knew my sweetheart held in the pockets of his hoodie. We both knew they were there, had together chosen to take them from the navy blue bag with the rust-colored tissue and ribbon handles that we left in the trunk of the car. The boxes, I knew, were charcoal-colored, leather-bound with light grey stitches edging around the top, each enclosed in its own slightly larger black cardboard box. We had come to Ventura today – actually, had originally planned for a week ago, but there was the matter of a rescheduled rehearsal that was later canceled, but then it was too late to re-reschedule our appointment – for these boxes, but now, with our feet tucked into the sand and our faces glowing in the sunset, we pretended the boxes weren’t there, pretended that we had come here only for the most gorgeous of sunsets, that we had driven here to Ventura just to witness mother nature at the height of all her Technicolor glory.
Later, after we asked and said yes, yes, yes, my love, my sweet love, and asked to hear it again just one more time, and once more, laughing and teasing each other, and thank you, thank you a million times for sharing your life and letting me love you and be loved more than I have ever known, after the rings were on our fingers, mine in yellow gold with three diamonds and three little chips that Hugo added of his own artistic vision, and my sweetheart’s in white gold with seven small diamonds in chocolate, champagne, and yellow-green, after we held each other’s hands and reflected again on the perfect artistry of the hammered metals, the simple beauty of the stones, later, after the sun had gone and the clouds had disappeared into the dark night, we drove back down the freeway to Los Angeles for dinner and some wine, happy to keep and hold our joy just for ourselves for one more night, and to sleep in the soft flannel sheets of the house we already share, back door open to the night chill, the cat quietly tapping across the wood floors, our bodies and dreams wrapped together like a present that reveals more facets of its gift every new day that we awaken together.
I haven't mentioned the List in some time not because I abandoned it, but because the List shifted my focus away from itself and onto the new paths it has forged in my life. I am now standing on one of those new paths at the far edge of 2013, marking the last days of my second List year.
The first List of 100 Things began on my yoga mat, on December 31, 2011. It was inspired by a friend's own list (you can read about it here), and although I had no premeditated plan to embark on my own, there I was at 8 p.m. in the front row of a packed New Years Eve intentional yoga class, thinking about the upcoming 2012 and some things I hoped to do. Though it took me several months to come up with all 100, that night was the beginning.
The List of 100 Things To Do in 2012
So, how did that first year feel? A little practical. Those socks I'd meant to darn? Done. Ditto old clothes donated. Ditto the back-up hard drive.
But more than practical, the List was magical. Even now, at the end of my second List year, I am still in awe of how my life has changed. The List opened up inner desires of how I wanted to live. It encouraged me to break beyond patterns I had fallen into, let go of final outcome, push past anxiety that was holding me from taking the first steps in things I had been secretly yearning to do. The short story I had been wanting to revise for six years? The List got me to dig it out, and sit down and write. The List got me to run longer, further. And running and writing became intertwined, as every morning I worked on the short story, and every afternoon I reviewed the story in my mind as I ran. I got stronger in body and spirit, and the inner chatter about all the ways I don't measure up to media's perfection finally quieted.
The List of Things To Do in 2013 is three typed pages long. Just like last year, the writing of it was several months of fits and starts, paperclips keeping track of my sloppy almost-cursive hand over the pages of my journal, items scribbled out in black and blue ink as the pages of the moleskin were spent and that volume finally tucked with the others in my closet. As most of my journaling tends to be, the list got unruly. Sometime in the late spring I typed it up neatly, numbered each item with little square boxes for checkmarks, and folded the three printed pages into the back pocket of my current moleskin. I didn't look at it much recently, caught up as I have been with school and other things, but the year is ending, and so is the list.
In the end, my work with running in 2012 led me to 2013's running Door to the Shore and M2B running goals. My work on the story led me take a few online classes at UCLA and then to apply to (and get accepted) (and begin) the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch. I have become a runner. I have become a writer. I have become a swimmer. And most importantly, I found my way to a place where I can work steadily towards goals while enjoying the process along the way. The List has been teaching me how to step up and do my part, and when my part is done, how to surrender the result to the universe.
This week I tallied up the items that I have completed on my List of 2013. A few days ago it was 59, with a probable final tally of 61, exactly what last year's final list tally was (59 by the end of the year, but 61 in the end). Yesterday Darby and I took the girls ice skating , so now I'm up to 60.
#83 Do a winter sport of any kind
So here it is. THE LIST OF 100 THINGS TO DO IN 2013.
Perhaps next year's should say "Practice math skills". As it turns out, I've already done 63 this year. And still with four days left of the year...
Yesterday was the last day of my first residency. While I was at school, Darby and the girls gussied up the house for the holidays. They hung their red and hot pink with gold lame handmade stockings over the fireplace screen. They draped white lights over Ganesha on the mantle. Our old friend, the styrofoam snowman, was planted back in the soil of the potted plant where he sits every winter. The handful of holiday cards we've received so far this season were set up on display. The girls assembled our vintage two-foot-high aluminum tree, hung their ornaments, and plugged in the accompanying color light wheel by the fireplace where the money tree used to be before the roots rotted from my over-zealous watering earlier this year. Hanukah's been over for a while but we tend to pack the holiday decorations all together. Darby made a centerpiece of two plastic dreidels, a cactus, and a frosty-the-snowman cookie tin for the silver thread dining room tablecloth. I walked in the front door at 5 p.m. to a living room bedazzled with glitter and tinsel. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This must be what Rip Van Winkle felt like when he awakened from his slumber of a hundred years. On the top shelf of our fridge is a sweet potato I baked before school started. I suppose I should compost it, but a part of me still doesn't believe two weeks have passed. I missed Emerson's holiday choir concert, and Esme's acting class presentation. I missed the newest batch of released music, the primary project I oversee at my day job. I've missed emails, New York Times headlines, and Facebook updates. I've missed details never to be recalled about Darby's life.
But what would have been missed had I not folded into this MFA program? There’s a lot that’s in theory right now, but I’m pretty sure that once I sit down and actually start writing (I don’t know if this almost stream-of-conscious blog counts) I’ve got a new set of awareness and inspiration to work with. I’ve blogged before about 40-day transformation practices. If I consider these ten days as the beginning of another set of forty, I wonder by mid-January how my writing practice will have changed.
It is nearly 9 a.m. and I am sitting here at the table, writing by the light of day streaming through the dining room windows. Faint but distinct synth chords and a melody that Darby has been working on come floating down the hall. The girls are watching Hairspray, both wrapped up in their comforters munching on Honey O's cereal, and I am typing to a little dance number featuring John Travolta in a pink sequin dress.
This morning, before the coffee, before the disco music, before I even opened my eyes to the morning light, Darby held me in his arms and whispered over and over, "I got my woman back, I got my woman back, I got my woman back."
When I think of my favorite Boston bookstores, I immediately think of the independently run Harvard Book Store with the wide glass window display of new releases and local interests, taking up nearly half a block of Mass. Ave heading towards Central Square, just after the Leavitt & Peirce tobacco shop. I must have biked or walked past this shop thousands of times in the thirteen years I lived around Boston. Many evenings, with nothing urgent calling, I stood in the yellow glow of the bright glass windows, letting my mind wander and my eyes graze over the covers on display. Sometimes I would file a title away in my mind, something to look into later, and then keep walking past. Other times my curiosity pushed me through the front door into the stacks, and I'd leaf through crisp pages, loosen my scarf and unbutton my coat as my eyes wandered to another shelf and picked up another book. Time slipped by in those visits, but it never felt wasted. Often before leaving the shop, for some unknown reason, I'd head to Fiction - W just to be sure that my favorite author was still in stock. I went too often to be surprised with a new Jeanette Winterson release, but it gave me comfort to see the familiar spines.
I also think of The Trident Booksellers and Cafe, which is not ruined for me despite the year I worked there, managing the cafe. The Trident is on the Boston side of the Charles River. I discovered David Sedaris in that shop, and Kathleen Dean Moore. There is the travel section with Lonely Planet books for every region, and I fantasized about where on earth I would go. There are shelves for all kinds of spirituality that I had never heard of until my first time there, on a field trip into the city with some of my undergraduate friends. Always a greedy journaler, comparative shopping for the most pages per penny, it was at the Trident that I first discovered the Moleskin journals, and abandoned the hard-backed sketch books I used in my Brandeis days for the extra-large soft-cover unlined Moleskin with the trademark pocket in the back I started to use at Berklee.
Sometimes, rarely, and mostly just for the restroom, I wandered into the Harvard Coop, now owned (I believe) by Barnes and Noble. It's a grand building now - if I recall correctly it was renovated back in the mid-'90s - with a winding staircase up to a book-lined balcony, but the selection never captured my attention like the Trident's or the Harvard Book Store. Still, there were rainy days I took refuge at the cafe on the second floor or spread my reading out on a table looking down into the atrium.
I once caught a snippet of a tour guide's speech about Cambridge having more book stores per square mile than any other city in the world. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, for both independent book and music stores alike. In those years, I was happily oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industry that was taking place across the rest of the country, wiping out independent stores and streamlining the interests of America in what I now have the lexicon to call "intellectual colonization".
Now in Los Angeles, I miss those Boston bookstores. Yes, just yesterday I wrote about the magic of this city built on rock and roll, but it is also a literary desert. Half of the books on my shelf were acquired from the literary division during the year I worked for International Creative Management, one of the top talent agencies. A few weeks ago, discovering that the library closed early on Fridays, I drove around aimlessly searching for a place to buy the book I was (insanely) desperate to begin. The night ended with margaritas, but sadly no book.
However, lest you weep in sorrow for my plight, I can happily tell you that just three blocks from my house, along the Chandler bike path, there is The Iliad. Literally, it is (I believe) one of only three bookstores in the whole San Fernando Valley. (Actually, I am being generous here -- I can only think of two off-hand now that the Aroma Cafe shop closed, but even that was more gift boutique with a few compelling titles than a serious book store.) The other night, with my semester's reading list in hand, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, my head crooked to one side, reading every spine in search of the books on my list. It is a used bookstore, scented with the mustiness of old pages and attended by unkempt introverts. I found all but five of my books (truth told, I forgot to look for two of them), and now have a stack next to my bed and a warmth in my heart that at the very least there is this one place of book lover refuge nearby.
It's funny that today I am thinking so much of Harvard Square and the bookstores of Boston. You'd think I'd be filled with thoughts of these past days at Antioch. But maybe there's something to this reaching for the past while moving forward on this new endeavor.
Yesterday in a workshop on narration and reflection, we read (and re-read) (and then re-read again) the Joan Didion essay "Goodbye to All That" about her time in NYC as a young woman. Maybe while I slept last night I turned over her New York into my Boston. Reading and talking about writing gives a framework, a structure through which to talk/think/write about the past. After seven years here in Los Angeles, my memories of Beantown have softened a little, the background noise has become more muffled. Meanwhile, the highlights have brightened, the distinct moments have become more pronounced. Luckily we humans cannot remember everything. How that would crush us in nostalgia. Hemingway was only able to write about Paris when he was back in Michigan. So now here in Los Angeles, maybe it's time to write about Boston.
Here's the final list for my Project Period (subject to change):
1. Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas
2. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
3. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
4. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Wolf
5. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
6. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
7. Light in August, William Faulkner
8. Plainwater, Ann Carson
9. Here is Where We Meet, John Berger
10. Beloved, Toni Morrison
11. Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
12. The Golum and The Jinni, Helene Wrecker